At the Races: Can you cancel a civil war?

Posted February 25, 2021 at 2:30pm

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Florida Sen. Rick Scott, who leads the NRSC, declared in a memo to voters and donors this week that the GOP “civil war has been cancelled.” 

Not so fast. 

While we’re reluctant to employ the language of war, especially after the violence of Jan. 6, we can safely say that the Republican Party’s internal strife is not over. And it’s about to take a public turn this weekend when Donald Trump addresses the Conservative Political Action Conference. The former president has signaled his interest in seeking retribution, in the form of primary challenges, against congressional Republicans who haven’t exhibited sufficient loyalty to him. 

Scott relayed to reporters at the Capitol a recent conversation he had with Trump: “I told him I want to win in ’22 and said I’m going to be very specific of where I think he could be helpful and he gets to make the decision whether he wants to do it or not.” House GOP leaders, too, remain at odds over the former president’s role in their party. 

For their part, congressional Democrats are putting the spotlight on an issue that appears to unify them: a political overhaul that would redo campaign finance, ethics and voting laws, such as mandating early and by-mail balloting in all states. The House will likely vote on the measure as early as next week, and this comes as some states — including Florida, Iowa and Georgia — move on measures to roll back the voting alternatives that flourished in 2020 because of the pandemic. “The best thing we could do would be to reform the whole system,” New York Rep. Sean Patrick Maloney, who chairs the DCCC, said during a Politico Playbook event this week.

Republicans, who have coalesced recently on the messaging of reopening schools and attacking Democrats’ $1.9 trillion COVID-19 relief package, see opposition to the bill as equally salient for their voters, as Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell made clear Thursday.

Starting gate

Georgia on our minds (still): There was some news from Georgia this week with former GOP Sen. David Perdue announcing that he won’t run for Senate after all. Georgia Republicans are still reeling from losing both Senate seats in January runoffs, and they’re looking for lessons from those defeats heading into 2022, when Democratic Sen. Raphael Warnock will be seeking a full term.

Political priority: With House Democrats poised to pass their 791-page campaign finance, elections and ethics overhaul as soon as next week, outside groups for and against the measure are launching multimillion-dollar campaigns aimed at the Senate. 

Save the date: Texas Gov. Greg Abbott set a May 1 date for the special election in the 6th District to fill the unexpired term of the late GOP Rep. Ron Wright. The race looks like it will be the most competitive of a handful of special elections in the coming months. Wright died this month of complications from COVID-19. On Wednesday, his widow, Susan Wright, formally announced a bid for the seat.

Testing, testing: Republicans are testing ways to make the $1.9 trillion COVID-19 relief package and other early policy priorities of the Biden administration a liability for vulnerable House Democrats.

ICYMI

Waiting game: Iowa GOP Sen. Charles E. Grassley told reporters this week that he’ll make a decision about running for an eighth term “sometime in September, October or November."

Paging digital strategists: Google ended its ban on political ads this week. No word yet on if or when Facebook will lift its ban on campaign ads. 

Thinking about it: North Carolina Republicans considering bids to succeed retiring Sen. Richard M. Burr include state GOP Chairman Michael Whatley, former Gov. Pat McCrory and Rep. Ted Budd, The Washington Post reports. In Alabama, Rep. Terri A. Sewell, the only Democrat in the delegation, is weighing a run for the state’s open Senate seat. (Here’s a throwback to the role she played in former Democratic Sen. Doug Jones’ successful campaign in 2017.) And in New Hampshire, GOP Gov. Chris Sununu said he’s “definitely open” to running next year against Democratic Sen. Maggie Hassan. 

Common ground: The U.S. Chamber of Commerce launched its bipartisan Common Grounds series (in partnership with Compass Coffee) this week with Massachusetts Democratic Rep. Seth Moulton and Rep. Rodney Davis, the Illinois Republican who survived the blue wave of 2018 and beat the same opponent in 2020. Though the topic was infrastructure policy, the duo shared some shocking revelations — about their coffee consumption. Moulton admitted that he rations his intake to three coffees a week. Davis told Moulton and the chamber’s Neil Bradley: “I’ll be honest with you both: I don’t drink coffee. I have found that my early morning drink of choice is Diet Coke or Diet Pepsi.” 

Just don’t call them earmarks: K Street eyes a likely return of earmarks with cautious jubilation. But even though lawmakers are unlikely to ban earmarks for campaign contributors, the practice won’t return to the boom years of yore. 

On the front lines: Pro-Trump Republicans — many of them alumni of the former president’s administration — continue to announce or weigh primary challenges to House Republicans who voted for impeachment. That list now includes former Trump White House aide Max Miller, who is expected to challenge Rep. Anthony Gonzalez in Ohio; former Commerce Department appointee Catalina Lauf, who is challenging Illinois Rep. Adam Kinzinger; and former Trump Selective Service System Chief of Staff Wadi Yakhour, who is challenging Washington Rep. Jaime Herrera Beutler. 

Déjà vu: The week also brought the possibility of several rematches between Democrats and hard-line Republicans. Retired Air Force Col. Moe Davis filed paperwork to challenge North Carolina GOP Rep. Madison Cawthorn, who defeated him in an open-seat race last fall. Project Veritas activist Laura Loomer announced she would try again to unseat Democrat Lois Frankel in Florida. And former Utah Rep. Ben McAdams said he was pondering a rematch against GOP Rep. Burgess Owens.

Shaky ground: Daily Kos Elections finished its calculation of the Trump-Biden presidential vote in every House district and the final tally shows seven Democrats — Cindy Axne (IA-03), Cheri Bustos (IL-17), Matt Cartwright (PA-08), Jared Golden (ME-02), Andy Kim (NJ-03), Ron Kind (WI-03) and Elissa Slotkin (MI-08) — representing Trump districts. Nine Republicans — Don Bacon (NE-02), Brian Fitzpatrick (PA-01), Mike Garcia (CA-25), John Katko (NY-24), Young Kim (CA-39), María Elvira Salazar (FL-27), Michelle Steel (CA-48), David Valadao (CA-21) and Beth Van Duyne (TX-24) — represent Biden districts.

What we’re reading

O-H-I-O: NBC News explores how Ohio Republicans vying to replace retiring GOP Sen. Rob Portman are competing for the “Trump lane.” One of those Republicans, former state Treasurer Josh Mandel, gets the Stu Rothenberg treatment this week. And National Journal has a dive into the Buckeye State’s brewing Democratic primary.

Getting ugly: Politico looks at how retiring GOP Sen. Patrick J. Toomey’s decision to convict Trump is already affecting the race to replace him, with Trump allies vowing to torpedo former GOP Rep. Ryan A. Costello, a Trump critic who is weighing a run.  

Invested in Trump: Insider looks at the 125 people and organizations that fueled Trump’s rise to power and the norm-busting ways that tested American democracy. Speaking of norm-busting, Politico reports that the ex-president, in preparation for the 2022 midterms, is preparing to vet candidates who are eager to fulfill his promise to exact vengeance upon incumbent Republicans who’ve scorned him.  

Down-ballot disappointment: Democratic advocacy groups quietly launched a review of the party’s 2020 performance with an eye toward shaping the message for next year’s campaigns, according to The New York Times. The effort aims to wrestle with the question of why down-ballot Democrats failed to latch on to Biden’s win.   

Behind the camera: Female-owned TV ad firms are still rare, even with record numbers of women running for office and more women in campaign leadership positions. ATR alum Simone Pathé reports for CNN that some Democratic women are taking matters into their own hands and launching their own firms.

Now comes the hard part: Republicans who have left the party over their opposition to Trump are having trouble figuring out what they do next, Politico reported.

Enduring influence: Meanwhile, The Kansas City Star delved into Trump’s stubborn hold on the GOP in Kansas and Missouri. A test of the former president’s sway over the Midwest will come in 2022, when Republican Sens. Jerry Moran of Kansas and Roy Blunt of Missouri will be on the ballot, along with Kansas Democratic Gov. Laura Kelly.

The count: 58%

That how much of the nearly $7.5 million raised by the NRCC in January came from donors giving less than $200, a $4.3 million haul. Overall, the committee raised about $479,000 more than its Democratic counterpart last month, but a big part of that edge resulted from contributions from House GOP members and their leadership PACs. Still, the cash from so-called small donors stood out, especially since the total for the same period two years ago was $1.8 million, or 36 percent of a smaller bottom line.

Nathan’s notes

It’s still early in the election cycle, but Nathan L. Gonzales writes this week that we can expect some House members to run for governor, with lots of states hosting contests for their governors’ mansions over the next two years. He breaks down the names already being mentioned as potential candidates.

Candidate confessions

Pennsylvania state Rep. Malcolm Kenyatta launched his Senate campaign last week, becoming the second high-profile Democrat to jump into the open-seat race. Just 30 years old, Kenyatta would be among the youngest senators ever elected. He would also be the Keystone State’s first Black and first openly gay senator. 

“It’s not lost on me that there’s going to be a lot of little kids who are looking up and saying, ‘Oh my gosh, look at somebody who looks like me, or maybe loves the way that I love. Wow, you know, I can do anything,’” Kenyatta told reporters on a press call Friday. He said his friend’s 9-year-old daughter stayed up late to watch his campaign announcement on MSNBC last week. “And she said, ‘You know what, I’m going to run for president and Malcolm can advise me.”

Shop talk: Zach Hunter

Hunter has spent his career in Republican political communications, including stints as the communications director for Illinois Rep. Kinzinger, the House Energy and Commerce Committee, and the NRCC. After his most recent job as a vice president of the American Action Network and its sister super PAC the Congressional Leadership Fund during the 2020 cycle, he has joined the public relations firm Narrative Strategies but still does political projects on the side. 

Starting Out:  Hunter’s family was active in politics in Marietta, Ga., a once deep-red area that has since shifted left. He became interested in politics when he helped his dad run a successful county commissioner campaign when he was in middle school. “Whether it’s putting up signs or knocking on doors or glad-handing at a local fish fry, whatever it was, I got to see that firsthand, how much he enjoyed it and how much energy it gave him. And I just kind of knew at that point that politics in some way, shape or form was always going to be a part of my life,” he says. 

Most unforgettable campaign moment: George H.W. Bush visited Hunter’s local church in 1992, when Hunter was 6. “It was a packed event. We couldn’t even get inside,” he recalls. “But my family went and showed up with thousands of others, to stand in the parking lot in our red, white and blue clothes, wave our American flags, just to get a glimpse of the presidential motorcade pulling into the event. I still remember the way the crowd roared when he came by, the excitement people had. It’s really the memory of that energy, the feeling of that energy that politics gives people.”

Biggest campaign regret: Hunter was responsible for California races when he served as a regional press secretary for the NRCC during the 2016 cycle. It had been decades since a Republican had flipped a seat held by a Democrat in the state. “I was hell-bent on breaking that streak,” Hunter says. “We had a lot of great candidates in California that year, and we were sure that at least one of them was going to win and flip the seat into the Republican column and sort of break the curse. … That didn't happen. We managed to keep all of our incumbents, which was a great success at the time. But it was a huge regret that we didn’t end up breaking the curse of that blue wall in ’16.” 

Unconventional wisdom: “The last several years, but especially 2020, has sort of upended everything about our lives and caused us to rethink everything,” he says. “A lot of people feel uncertain about what they even know about politics at a fundamental level. But I would argue that, if you look at the successful campaigns, especially in 2020, at the congressional level, my unconventional wisdom is that the fundamentals still hold. Don’t throw out everything that you have known to be true in the past because there’s so much uncertainty in the rest of the world. … Candidates matter. Message matters. Fundraising matters. And despite all the other uncertainty that we deal with on a day-to-day basis, the fundamentals of political campaigns haven’t changed.”

Do you know someone who works in campaigns whom we should feature for Shop Talk? Email us at attheraces@cqrollcall.com.

Coming up

The Conservative Political Action Conference, as we mentioned, starts tonight in Florida. The annual GOP gathering will feature 45 members of Congress, including NRSC Chairman Scott. North Carolina Senate hopeful and former GOP Rep. Mark Walker is also listed as a speaker, while Ohio Senate candidate Josh Mandel is listed on the agenda for the welcome reception. Of course, the main event will be Trump’s speech on Sunday, his first since leaving office. He is scheduled to speak at 3:40 p.m. Eastern time.

Photo finish

TFW you have totally opposite views about the would-be leader of your party. A question about Donald Trump’s upcoming speech at CPAC created an awkward moment at this week’s House GOP leadership news conference, with Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy saying simply that Trump should address the conference but GOP Conference Chairwoman Liz Cheney noting that Trump should not be leading the party after the Jan. 6 attack at the Capitol. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call) 

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